introducing readers to writers since 1995

November 01, 2004

In This Photo, Tom Wolfe Has Just Been Told
Deborah Solomon Will Fill in for Charles McGrath

by Ron Hogan

wolfe.jpgI jest, of course--Solomon was far too busy trying to provoke National Book Award nominee Christine Schutt, leaving McGrath free to assay his best Wolfe imitationin the NYT Sunday magazine, to commemorate the impending publication of I Am Charlotte Simmons, which is "not one of those sensitivo epics about, like, sunsets and cocktail hour at the rest home. Yo, it's about college kids!"

Or, as Michiko Kakutani sums up in less celebratory fashion, "in the course of a very long 676 pages [Wolfe] serves up the revelation - yikes! - that students crave sex and beer, love to party, wear casual clothes and use four-letter words." Now, I find it hard to believe that even as effective a self-promoter as Tom Wolfe could've sold his publisher that blatant a bill of goods, but if Kakutani's to be believed, that's just what happened, resulting in a "disappointingly empty" novel with "a faintly stale 90's smell" about it.

Adam Kirsch, writing for the New York Sun is equally unimpressed with Wolfe's "gaping failure of sociological realism" in the novel, "not even a caricature of college life, but a fantasy - surely the worst failure of all for a novelist who prides himself on his Zolaesque realism." A good portion of Kirsch's review is actually devoted to contextualizing Wolfe's "authorial ambition" and deployment of gender imagery, while noting his "typical recourse to stereotypes of all kinds: just as his black characters are generally brutal and violent, and his women are generally manipulative sexpots, so his Jewish characters are usually weak, ambitious, resentful, and hypersensitive." Kirsch gives Wolfe the benefit of the doubt on the anti-Semitism question, but it's hard to see why after he elaborates:

That certainly describes the two most repellent characters in "Charlotte Simmons," the football-hating Professor Quat and Charlotte's suitor Adam Gellin. In both cases, Mr. Wolfe leaves no doubt of the relationship between their Jewishness and their moral flaws (and even their physical ones--Adam is a skinny weakling, Quat is fat and womanish). Indeed, he goes out of his way to tell us that both of them harbor an unbecoming admiration of Israel and a suspicious hostility to Christians.

Mind you, we predict that no matter how many more reviewers join the Tom Wolfe dogpile, the damn thing will still sell like hotcakes, but it'll be interesting to see if other critics just stick with the "boy, is this lame" line or continue Kirsch's compelling investigation of the possible insidiousness of the lazier qualities of Wolfe's allegedly realistic (and, to this reader, generally cartoonish) fiction.

Richard Burbridge/NYT


As someone who knows Christine Schutt and has had the honor to study with her, I was absolutely disgusted by this New York Times piece. I literally thought it was a joke. No attention was brought to her engaging lyrical style, her spare prose that made Nightwork such a beautiful collection or her repeated prize-winning stories, or the confident, astute novel that is Florida. How long she struggled as a writer to get her work published and revered as it is. I simply cannot understand how on earth someone could attack someone as kind, soft-spoken and prolific as Christine.

Suffice it to say, as a former student and as a writer, I was livid with Ms. Solomon's vapid questions. Oh god, Ron, could I just go on!!!!

Posted by: felicia at November 1, 2004 11:45 AM
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